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A week removed from her dominant three-round beating of Felicia Spencer and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino isn’t looking at a title shot -- she’s looking for a new home. In a “state of the union” interview with Laura Sanko, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White revealed that he had no intention of matching any offers the former featherweight queen might receive from rival organizations, stating that Justino was “free and clear to go to Bellator or any of these other organizations and fight these easy fights that she wants.”
Although White had previously stated that a Cyborg/Nunes rematch could be on the horizon, the decision to let Cyborg go apparently stems from a video package created by the former champ’s team which shows White and the 34-year-old Brazilian discussing a 145-pound title shot. In the video package in question, Justino confronts the UFC President about things he had said in the media; despite a public apology from Cyborg regarding the incident and an acknowledgment of said mea culpa from White, the UFC’s position seems to be final.
In any other sport, you’d imagine this type of back and forth to result in fines, labels of “unprofessionalism” from pundits, and odd looks from fans, but in MMA it's just another part of the sport -- and a lucrative part, at that.
Following the long legacy of trash talk in combat sports, MMA has kept that tradition alive and well, particularly in the UFC. Whether it’s Conor McGregor insulting Khabib Nurmagomedov’s family or, more recently, Colby Covington making jokes at the expense of Matt Hughes’s train accident, the more controversial a fighter can be outside of the Octagon the more attention they will receive from fans, the media, and often the UFC itself. And if a fighter can back their trash talk up with fighting skill, they may very well find themselves headlining events, securing promotional deals, and in some cases even getting on the fast track to a title shot.
Of course, there is a flip side to that coin: Taking the risk of “crossing the line” in one’s trash talk can result in real-world consequences. At UFC 178, Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier tore down a backdrop after their faceoff became a shoving match in which security had to get involved; following their historic fight at UFC 229, a brawl broke out between McGregor’s and Nurmagomedov’s teams which resulted in the two fighters receiving suspensions for their and their teammates’ actions; and, more recently, Jorge Masvidal and Leon Edwards got into a backstage brawl after a brief verbal exchange at UFC London, with the altercation leaving Edwards with a cut under his eye.
Despite varying punishments that have ranged from suspensions to shaming from the media, these fighters have all ultimately experienced profile bumps after the dust settled. Nurmagomedov received a hero’s welcome for his fight and post-fight actions from the Muslim community and will headline a massive card in Abu Dhabi this September. Despite moving up in weight, there are still many clamoring for a third clash between DC and Jones due to the intensity of their rivalry. And with Masvidal and Edwards having won their respective bouts this summer, they seem destined to clash in a match-up that will determine the next 170-pound title challenger after Covington gets his shot.
Although a war of words with other fighters and the resulting fallout can give an athlete some ammo for the next time contract negotiations come around, a war with the UFC rarely ends well for any fighter. Whether it’s a disagreement over media obligations, a fighter feeling disrespected by the promotion, or a personal feud with White, the UFC has made it clear that they are willing to eat the monetary losses if it means maintaining leverage over their athletes. In fact, after McGregor was able to secure some demands from the organization at the height of his popularity, the company arranged their most recent deal with ESPN, which increased their guaranteed revenue and effectively killed the “drawing power” bargaining chip held by the most popular UFC stars. Part of the reason that White and Co. can afford to let Cyborg walk out the door is that the ESPN deal makes up for whatever income the Brazilian generated for the promotion.
While it certainly seems like more and more UFC athletes are trying to push the envelope when it comes to trash-talking, the truth is that bad blood feuds have always been a key part of the business. In the Venn Diagram between casual and hardcore fans, a large part of the overlapping area is the intense rivalry and bad-mouthing build-up between two fighters who seem to hate each other. Whether it's Ali and Frazier or Jones and Cormier, getting people emotionally invested and having them pick a fighter to root for ahead of an anticipated clash increases the likelihood that they will go out of their way to purchase a pay-per-view event, whereas an event with two headliners who have nothing but nice things to say about each other isn’t exactly an advertiser’s dream. Whether this will ever change, no one can truly say, but expect in the meantime more verbal wars to be waged by fighters in the name of good business.